U.S. bailout recipients spent $114 million on politics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Banks, automakers and other companies that have received U.S. bailout money spent $114 million on lobbying and campaign contributions last year, a watchdog group said on Wednesday.

The Center for Responsive Politics said that amounted to a healthy return on investment for companies such as Bank of America and General Motors that were among those that received a total of $295 billion in federal support.

“Even in the best economic times, you won’t find an investment with a greater payoff than what these companies have been getting,” executive director Sheila Krumholz said in a statement.

Roughly 350 companies have gotten payouts under the government’s $700 billion bailout program.

Of those, 25 spent a total of $76.7 million on lobbying, the watchdog group said. Lobbying activity declined in the fourth quarter, when the bailout efforts were approved, as the companies felt the effects of the global recession.

GM spent $15 million on lobbying and political contributions in 2008, the watchdog group said. The company received $10.4 billion in federal government loans late last year as part of emergency funding to prop up the U.S. auto industry.

Bank of America, together with the Merrill Lynch investment bank it acquired, spent $14.5 million on lobbying and contributions. The bank has received $45 billion under the government’s $700 billion financial rescue fund.

The Treasury Department announced new rules last week to limit lobbying by companies that receive bailout money.

Employees from 161 of those companies also gave a total of $37.5 million to federal candidates in 2007 and 2008, the group said. Top recipients included Connecticut Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd and Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus, both of whom chair committees that oversee the financial services industry.

Congress is preparing to release the second $350 billion of the Treasury’s $700 billion bailout program after widespread disappointment with the handling of the first half by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Many lawmakers feel there were too few controls on companies receiving the initial payments.

Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Peter Cooney